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American Airlines pilot dies during flight, co-pilot lands plane

An American Airlines plane
An American Airlines plane

American Airlines official has confirmed that the company’s pilot of an Airbus 320 died during early Monday flight from Phoenix to Boston, and the co-pilot landed the plane safely. The plane with 147 passengers and five crew members on board had to be diverted to Syracuse, New York.

The airlines named Michael Johnston as the pilot who died midway through a Phoenix-to-Boston flight Monday. His wife, Betty Jean Johnston, confirmed that her husband likely suffered a heart attack.

Johnston, 57, joined America West Airlines in January 1990, Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker told American employees in a message. America West later acquired US Airways Group, which merged with American in 2013. Johnston, a captain, was based in Phoenix. American declined further comment Tuesday.

The first officer of Flight 550 was forced to take over the Airbus Group SE A320 when Johnston became disabled, and diverted the flight to an emergency landing at Syracuse, New York. The flight left Phoenix at 11:55 p.m. Sunday carrying 147 passengers and five crew members.

The passengers arrived in Boston later Monday after American dispatched a new crew to Syracuse, said Ross Feinstein, an American spokesman.

A pilot’s death in flight is a rare occurrence, but not unprecedented. Cockpit automation has helped ensure safety in case of the loss of one of the two crew members on the flight deck, ensuring that jetliners can be flown by a single pilot in an emergency.

Johnston said her husband had a double-bypass heart surgery in 2006 but had been in otherwise good health and that the airline required him to have a physical every six months.

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